AS POPE FRANCIS prepares to release his encyclical on climate change, it’s worth remembering exactly how far the conversation on religion and the environment has come in the past quarter-century.
When I wrote The End of Nature back in the late 1980s, there was very little religious environmentalism. Liberal churches believed that ecology was a subject to be addressed once you’d finished with war and poverty; conservative churches viewed it as a way station on the road to paganism. And Christians in general still reeled under the idea, propounded by Lynn White in an influential essay in Science magazine, that the Genesis call for dominion had led directly to the destruction we saw around us.
In those early days, there were a few wayfarers on this path. Thomas Berry, for instance, and even more important a pair of academics—Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim—who picked up his clues and sweated blood to assemble theologians from around the world and search every tradition for the roots of ecological thinking. Episcopal Power and Light—now Interfaith Power and Light—was an early and successful effort at congregational action; Shomrei Adamah (Guardians of the Earth) was an early effort in the Jewish community that has blossomed into many flowers.
More senior figures began to join. Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of 400 million Eastern Christians, became known as the “green patriarch” for his straightforward reckoning that environmental desecration was just that, a sin. Desmond Tutu has called climate change the “human rights challenge of our time.” Now the pope. “It is [humanity] who has slapped nature in the face,” Francis said. “We have in a sense taken over nature.”